If Horatio Alger Were a Girl

The Oldest of Four

by Amy Bell Marlowe, 1916

"Do the thing that's nearest" sounds like a good theme for her high school valedictorian's speech, thinks Natalie French, so she uses it. But she has no idea how soon she'll be called on to carry it out -- to be exact, before she can get from Commencement to the Senior Banquet. That's when they get the news that Mr. French, who was on a business trip to South America, may have been lost when his ship sank. Mrs. French promptly takes to her bed, leaving 16-year-old Natalie with the responsibility for her three younger sisters.

To make matters worse, Mr. French's employer is behaving unhelpfully, not to say suspiciously, about whatever commissions are owing him. Obviously the "thing that's nearest" is going to be to get some money coming into the house. So Natalie gets a job behind the notions counter at a local department store -- which sets off a certain amount of furore among the more class-conscious elements of her small New Jersey town.

This isn't going to be enough money, and it will be a real problem in the fall when school starts again for the two middle girls, so Natalie tries selling some of the sketches she has written -- with minimal success. She gets into major trouble in the store when a customer accuses her of theft, too. However, these troubles have happy outcomes and lead to her making two new friends; one a police detective, who gets interested in the matter of the missing commissions, and the other a magazine editor who offers Natalie a department editor's job that she can do at home for more money -- and who is interested not only in the matter of her missing father, but in Natalie.

Now she only has to do most of the housework, care for her mother, and be the family breadwinner, so in her copious free time Natalie starts a letter-writing campaign, trying to find her father, who has not been accounted for although it seems everyone else on the ship has.

It all ends happily, with Natalie a sadder but wiser, and successfully self-reliant, girl and the family in good hands (and not because she's married anybody!)

Among the charms of this book are the vignettes along the way, which add body to what might otherwise be a sparse depiction of Perseverance and Virtue Overcoming All. (Books written under the Marlowe name are peppered with these stereotypes-turned-upside-down.) In this one, Nat's employer in the department store is shown as a shrewd Jewish businessman with a heavy accent -- and as a fair employer who stands by Nat at the risk of some loss of local goodwill. Jimmy, the boy next door who decides Nat's independence isn't to his taste, is disabled, but has gone through the local public school system in a wheelchair with occasional forays on crutches. The varied reactions of Nat's acquaintance when they find the Senior Class President waiting on customers behind the counter like any working class mortal are nicely done, as are some misplaced efforts at charity. And there is a continuing subplot revolving around the weighty (in 1916) question "When does a teenage girl need a chaperone? Is a business lunch a social occasion?"

© 1994 Jo Anne Fatherly

(This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends)